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State Fair of Virginia operating under new owners

Tuesday - 10/2/2012, 4:28pm  ET

By STEVE SZKOTAK
Associated Press

DOSWELL, Va. - The crowds may be off a bit for the fried foods, farm animals and champion produce at this year's State Fair of Virginia, but the man who helped save the annual event from going under says the fairgoers are happy to find it still going strong.

Most people say, "Thank you for saving the fair. And you've done a great job," said Mark Lovell, the president of Universal Fairs LLC of Tennessee.

The fair is about midway through its run, which began Friday under the partnership of Lovell's Universal Fairs and the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. Both parties agree they have some kinks to work out. While fair attendance figures were not available Tuesday, Lovell and the Farm Bureau hinted that the numbers were likely down.

Both blame uncertainty over the future of the fair and the short turn-around after the attraction's salvation from collapse under a mountain of debt.

Greg Hicks, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau, said attendance was at best average over the weekend or 10 percent to 20 percent off.

Universal Fairs purchased the rolling green acres at auction in May for $5.67 million from State Fair of Virginia Inc. In July, the Farm Bureau announced it partnership with Universal to produce the fair under the name of Commonwealth Fairs and Events LLC.

"I just think there was uncertainty over whether there was going to be a fair or not," Hicks said. "There was a lot of confusion."

As a result, some advertisers of the past were lost as well as some sponsors and exhibitors, such as Virginia Tech and the 4-H.

"We put this fair together in 70 days," Hicks said. "For most fairgoers, it's going to be a seamless transition, with a few new twists."

The fair features the traditional agricultural display of farm animals, including a few not found on many Virginia farms. They include camels, bears and a Patagonian cavy, a South American rodent that has the appearance of a short-eared, long-legged rabbit.

Visitors can also see two midways, exhibition halls, fair standards such as racing pigs and performances by acts such as Diamond Rio and the Kentucky Headhunters. The Farm Bureau is also touting virtual farm tours.

Lovell is a hands-on kind of guy and the fair that runs through Sunday has kept him busy as he patrols the 331-acre property that was once home to race horsing great Secretariat .

"How else are you going to know how people feel about your product unless you're there?" asked Lovell, who was at the main gate this week to size up the crowds. "I'm pretty much all over. I probably talk to at least 50 fairgoers a day."

Lovell's Universal Fairs operates six other fairs across the nation, with the Georgia State Fair next up for Lovell. He said his rounds here have fielded a few complaints and suggestions from visitors.

State Fair of Virginia Inc. acquired the Meadow Farm property in 2003 for $5.3 million and moved the fair dating to the Civil War from Richmond north to Doswell. The nonprofit defaulted on about $80 million in financing from a group of creditors and was forced to liquidate.

After the site underwent nearly $100 million in construction projects, the fair debuted in Caroline County in September 2009.

Hicks and Lovell said the kinks both sides need to work out include communication and getting an earlier jump on the 2013 edition.

"I'm learning every second I'm here, absorbing everything I can experience," Hicks said.

In his travels, Lovell is doing the same thing. "If they like it, we'll book it again. We're in it for the long haul."

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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Online:

State Fair of Virginia: http://www.statefairva.org/

Universal Fairs LLC: http://www.universalfairs.com/

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation: http://vafarmbureau.org/


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)